T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H  –  A P R I L   2006


by Tara Kirby

Mark Knepper
Fady Botros

Late last summer, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, research at Tulane University in New Orleans and other institutions was imperiled too. Not only were researchers displaced from their laboratories, but also in many cases equipment and irreplaceable research materials were lost.

NIH quickly responded to the humanitarian and medical needs of those affected by Katrina. (See editorial, "Responding to Hurricane Katrina,"  The NIH Catalyst, September-October 2005.)

It was also recognized that researchers would need help to continue (or even salvage) their research programs. In addition to special policies for affected NIH grantees, NIH extended help from its intramural program.

In a memo dated Sept. 4, 2005, Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman encouraged investigators to "provide research homes"  for displaced researchers and their trainees. Scientific directors were asked to help intramural investigators with logistics and financial support for bringing Gulf Coast colleagues to NIH. http://dir.nhlbi.nih.gov/labs/lkem/index.asp

Mark Knepper was one investigator who responded to this call. Chief of the Laboratory of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism at NHLBI, Knepper encountered a colleague at an American Heart Association meeting in late September—L. Gabriel Navar, chair of the Department of Physiology at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Navar had relocated to the University of Mississippi Medical School in Jackson, Miss., to regroup after the hurricane.  http://dir.nhlbi.nih.gov/staffpages/knepperm/

Navar introduced Knepper to his postdoctoral fellow, Fady Botros, who needed a space to work, as well as computer and library resources, to revise a paper and plan future experiments. Botros had returned to the New Orleans suburbs a week after Katrina hit and had been attempting to work at home. Knepper offered to host Botros, and while the offer was effortless, the administrative arrangements "turned out to be pretty tricky," Knepper recalled in an interview with The NIH Catalyst. 

But, as the saying goes, where there's a will, there's a way.  NHLBI was committed to helping displaced researchers, and Scientific Director Robert Balaban "said 'Do it'," reported Knepper. "We had Fady on a Washington-bound plane within three days.  

Botros arrived at NIH on October 10 and spent three weeks in Knepper's lab. He exchanged ideas with people in the lab and learned about the NIH intramural program. Botros also presented a talk on his research at Tulane—the role of heme oxygenase in regulating renal microcirculation and renal function. In addition to the mutually beneficial interactions with Knepper's group, Botros also received material support. "'NHLBI was generous"  in providing support for his visit and travel expenses, he says.

In early November, Botros returned to Louisiana.  Knepper observed, "I would have been happy to have him stay much longer, but he needed to go back to rejoin his wife"—a Ph.D. student at Louisiana State University displaced to Baton Rouge—"and help in the cleanup."  Botros took back the fruits of his collaboration—protocols and antibodies for his future studies. He looked forward to continuing his collaboration with Knepper, but "everything was delayed,"  he said, "because the situation was worse than I expected"  when he returned to New Orleans.

It would be several months before Botros could continue his research. When he returned to New Orleans, recovery efforts by his labmates were stymied because the facilities and power plant were still nonoperational. It was not until early December that they were allowed to retrieve items from the lab spaces. "We could go in twice a day for an hour each time and under supervision," explained Botros, "because the building was not safe." 

Navar's group members returned to their lab in January, but still could not conduct experiments due to continued utility outages. Botros was finally able to restart his research on February 7, more than five months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Still, he was one of the lucky ones; two-thirds of the medical school was still closed at that time, he said. Some investigators were able to find temporary work space in those buildings that were open.

Navar noted the need still in early March for major electrical work to reroute the main control panels and generators, but he anticipated that the entire medical school would be open by the end of that month. He praised Knepper and NHLBI for their "gracious assistance"  and expressed gratitude for the many groups and individuals who rushed to support the Tulane research community.

Botros calls his time at NIH "a great research and life experience.  He was "happy,"  he says, "to be in a normal research environment after the disruption" visited upon him and his labmates.

Knepper downplays his own role and credits "the nature of the NIH community to be open, compassionate, and eager to share. Many, many people," he said, "helped to make Fady's visit possible."



Records are spotty, but at least 20 other NIHers offered lab and/or housing space to researchers displaced by the hurricane or the families of patients dispatched to the Clinical Center. Hundreds volunteered to provide needed services on-site in the Gulf Coast. And the postbac community organized  relief efforts that resulted in the shipment of money, household supplies, toys, clothing, and food to the Gulf Coast, as well as more than 30 large boxes of clothing and food to a local charity working with people evacuated to the Washington, D.C.-Maryland area.



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